As a genre or style, neofolk has always been more miss than hit for me. I am a huge fan of the early through mid period Death in June, Sol Invictus, and a few others, but too often it comes across like low rent Leonard Cohen with a questionable sense of nationalism. The debut from Barren Harvest, featuring members of Worm Ouroboros and Atriarch, does not fall into this trap by any means. With balanced implementation male and female vocals and a tasteful use of keyboards with the acoustic instruments, the album is somewhere between Nada! era DIJ and the stronger moments of mid-period Swans, while still retaining its own identity.
The Swans reference is most apparent when it comes to the vocals, with Lenny Smith (Atriarch) and Jessica Way (Worm Ouroboros) bearing a passing resemblance to Gira and Jarboe's work at the White Light From the Mouth of Infinity/Love of Life era of the band. While I realize this is a contentious time in that band's history, the high points on those albums were no less powerful than their other work. Like those records, both Smith and Way have that macabre, morbid quality to their voices that fits the music perfectly.
The bulk of the songs on Subtle Cruelties mesh low end synth strings with passages of gentle acoustic guitar, such as on the opener "The Bleeding." On "Claw and Feather," the sound slowly builds from these two components into a richer, more complicated mix that hits just the right level of dramatic without going over the edge. On songs like "Heavens Age," the duo emphasize guitar, with Smith's vocals channeling Nick Cave and Peter Murphy equally to give a wonderfully morose early death rock feel before Way’s somber voice kicks in to give a different feel.
"Memoriam II" is a case in which the electronic elements become the focus, with the electronics conjuring wonderfully bleak moods, and with the dramatic swells and vocals. It sounds as if it could have been recorded in 1981 at the height of post-punk. "Memoriam VI" is also built more on the electronic atmosphere, with the lighter synths offsetting the darker, more desolate singing.
The greatest moments are where the two are nicely balanced, such as on "Coil Uncoil" where gentle acoustic guitar is first paired with Smith’s graven vocals, then lightened up by Way’s while everything retains just the right amount of rough hewn sound and dissonance. The album’s centerpiece is the long "Reveal," in which the duo initially emphasizes atmospheric electronics and echoing autoharp, mixed with rich, multitracked vocals from both. Slowly piano and electronics are introduced to the mix, building in depth and complexity to become the most complex and powerful piece here.
These dualities are what define Subtle Cruelties: male versus female vocals, organic guitar and synthetic keyboards, and a clashing sense of light and dark. The sound of the record conveys this as well, being both vintage in feel but modern in its approach. Even in the titling of the project and record captures the dichotomy of nature: cruel but indifferent. The album's vinyl release also deserves special mention, because in addition to the more conventional black and gold versions, a limited clear vinyl pressing is also available, with actual autumnal leaves encased in the record itself, something I have never seen done before personally. It makes for a unique presentation for an extremely singular, albeit bleak piece of music that has already made my short list for top records of 2014.